Seeds of Hope Neighborhood Center in Biddeford plans to host an overnight warming center on extremely cold nights. Courtesy photo

BIDDEFORD — On any given day, there may be 30 people or more who frequent the Seeds of Hope Neighborhood Center in Biddeford, many of whom are homeless.

A number these people sleep on the streets or in their vehicle, which can be very difficult in the best of circumstances, but is even more so in the winter and other extreme temperatures.

The nonprofit organization, located at 35 South St., is hoping to provide a place to go for those without a home on the coldest nights by opening an overnight warming center.

The start date would be in January and it would be open through March or April, depending on the temperature.

Seeds of Hope is open Monday through Friday from 9 a.m. to 1 p.m. and has extended hours during extreme cold or heat.

But when the center closes for the day when  its very cold, “it’s heartbreaking to send people into the elements,” said the Rev. Shirley Bowen, executive director of Seeds of Hope.

Recently, Bowen said, she and others saw the news reports of Russell Williams, 64, who was homeless and was found dead outdoors in his sleeping bag in Brunswick. Prior to his death, temperatures in Brunswick were unusually cold, according to a Dec. 2 Portland Press Herald article about Williams.

“That’s what made us say something has to be done,” she said. “None of us want to wake up and find out that one of our citizens has died” outside in the cold.

According to the 2019 Point in Time survey conducted on a specific night in January collected for the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, Biddeford had 11 adults who were unsheltered earlier this year and 22 people, including eight children, who were couch surfing — staying with friends or relatives.

However, Bowen, whose organization hands out sleeping bags and tarps to those who sleep outdoors says she knows of about 30 people in the city with no where to sleep inside.

In the past, the center has provided a warming center and place for people to go in extreme heat during the day, Bowen said.

This started during the winter about four years ago, she said. “We got a call from (the city of Biddeford’s) General Assistance asking if there was any chance we could stay open longer. We said we could do that.” And the center has been doing so ever since.

But this would be the first time the center would be open overnight for people to come in out of the cold.

Bowen said she is hopeful the center will open as planned.

Funding is in place.

On Thursday, Dec. 5, Biddeford City Council unanimously approved providing $32,896 to pay for the program.

At that time, Councilor Norman Belanger said, “I want to give you my heartfelt thanks for one, your willingness to do this, and two, for bringing it to the council for us to review. There’s lots of good things that Seeds of Hope does and I for one appreciate the commitment you have to the city and the things you do for those who are disenfranchised and homeless.”

Funds would come from the city’s contingency fund and would be used to pay for a staff member, heat, insurance, food and operating expenses during Seeds of Hope’s extra hours of operation.

Bowen said she is appreciative of the city providing the funds to pay for the program, without which Seeds of Hope would not be able offer the overnight warming center.

The next biggest challenge, she said, is finding the right person to manage the overnight warming center and getting teams of volunteers in place.

She’s hopeful, Bowen said, that volunteers from faith-based and other organizations will come forward to offer assistance.

The volunteers would be on call  for an assigned time period but may not be needed during all or even any of that time. The overnight warming center will only operate if the temperature is 20 degrees or lower.

Bowen stressed that the warming center will not be a shelter, there will be no cots or beds. The Code Enforcement Office doesn’t allow that, she said. People will be able to sit at tables and can sleep there. Children will be allowed if accompanied by an adult and they would be permitted to stretch out on the floor and sleep.

The overnight warming center would operate from 8 a.m. to 8 p.m. and warm drinks and a light breakfast would be provided to those staying there.

Bowen said she is pleased that Seeds of Hope will be able to offer the overnight warming center as a service to the city. However, she said, “we’re really clear this is just a band-aid and a temporary one until we have a larger solution of having more affordable housing in our community and good and better treatment for those who suffer from mental illness and substance use disorder and are victims of domestic violence and all the other things that contribute to somebody ending up being homeless.”

The overnight warming center is a pilot program, if it is successful, it may continue long-term.

In addition to a drop-in center, Seeds of Hope Neighborhood Center offers a career resource center, including computer access, interest-free security deposit loans, connects people to resources and more.

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